If the recent events at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill are any indication, a lot can — and will — go wrong this semester at colleges nationwide.
With cases of coronavirus rising, the possibility of more campus closures has sparked a sudden interest in college refund policies and tuition insurance.
While a number of colleges and universities have said they will offer refunds of fees and room and board, the reimbursement policies vary from school to school — and nearly all of them have drawn the line at tuition.
"Most colleges don't have very good refund policies," said Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of SavingForCollege.com. "Part of the reason for that: Once you get that far into the semester and the student drops out, you can't replace them."
Depending on when a student withdraws in a semester, the college's refund policy may reimburse a significant amount (specifically if it's within the first month or so of the semester, although it varies by school).
However, refunds are typically offered on a sliding scale and most schools won't give any money back at all after the fifth week of classes.
At UNC, for example, the deadline to withdraw and receive a 95% prorated refund was on Monday. This week, it dropped to 80% and decreases by another 10% in each following week. After Oct. 13, the school offers no money back.
Meanwhile, college costs are skyrocketing. Tuition and fees plus room and board for a four-year private college averaged $49,870 in the 2019-2020 school year; at four-year, in-state public colleges, it was $21,950, according to the College Board.
There is another way: Many schools also offer third-party tuition protection or it can also be purchased directly through a provider such as GradGuard or A.W.G. Dewar.
Tuition insurance, also known as tuition refund insurance, generally covers families mainly for medical or psychological reasons, with a few obvious exclusions, such as flunking out or being kicked out for disciplinary reasons (although the extent of coverage varies from plan to plan.)
As of this year, GradGuard, which works with more than 350 colleges, modified its protection to cover students who become ill due to Covid-19.
Before the pandemic, health conditions such as mononucleosis and pneumonia were among the top medical conditions that stood in the way of graduating on time, or at all. Now, coronavirus poses a very real threat.
In this case, the student must have a physician or medical practitioner certify that the illness required withdrawal from college for their tuition refund policy to apply.
Because of the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic, "we are busier than we've ever been," said John Fees, co-founder of GradGuard.
"The number of policies has doubled since last year — more schools are offering tuition insurance and twice as many families are buying it."
GradGuard's tuition insurance starts at $39.95 for $2,500 of coverage per term, although the average policy is $106 for $10,000 of coverage, Fees said. That not only covers tuition but also financial losses from housing and academic fees, as well.
Alternatively, families could petition the school for a refund due to the unique circumstances, "but, based on past experience, I haven't heard of very many students getting refunds for medical reasons pre-pandemic," Kantrowitz said.
"A lot of colleges are pretty stubborn on that point," he said. "They have limited budgets to accommodate changes in a student's circumstances, and they are likely to exhaust those budgets."
Many schools, in fact, are facing a significant shortfall, as more students decide to pass on remote learning this fall. (Already, universities have furloughed thousands of employees and announced revenue losses in the hundreds of millions, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.)
Families concerned about reimbursements in the event of an illness may be better off remaining remote this semester, Kantrowitz advised.
"If you are worried about the college shutting down the dorms mid-semester, go online only," he said.
"Colleges are being driven by money," he added. "They are not necessarily driven by the health and safety of students."